How We Got to North Korea's Pacific Nuclear Test Threat and What Comes Next
It would be the first above-ground detonation in decades and would send tensions into uncharted territory.
An ever escalating war of words between the United States and Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian regime in North Korea has reached an entirely new level since President Donald Trump threatened to “totally destroy” the Hermit Kingdom in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. It seems all but guaranteed that the rhetoric will lead to new North Korean provocations, but what's unprecedented and potentially game-changing is that they could potentially include a full demonstration of a nuclear-armed ballistic missile, or at least an above-ground nuclear weapon test, either which in turn would similarly demand some form of American response.
This latest escalation in tensions between the U.S. government and North Korean officials began on Sept. 19, 2017, when Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly for the first time with fiery remarks, lashing out at not only North Korea, but also Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and other critics of American foreign policy more broadly. He vowed to put the United States interests first in all matters and encouraged the other assembled leaders to do the same. But he reserved some of the most incendiary comments for Kim, who he has now nicknamed “Rocket Man,” and his regime.
“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” he declared. “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary.”
This particular statement drew “audible gasps” from some of the world leaders in attendance, according to The Associated Press. The North Korean delegation had already walked out in protest before Trump even began speaking.
Since then, the Trump Administration has defended the decision to make this threat in such a public forum. The same was true after the president’s now infamous “fire and fury” comments in August 2017.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders took to Twitter afterwards to claim the comments were not a departure from established foreign policy norms, citing a 2016 comment by President Barack Obama, where he acknowledged the U.S. military’s ability to destroy North Korea. She left out that Obama had added a caveat immediately after making this statement that the humanitarian costs would be enormous and that a massive attack could only put American ally South Korea at grave risk.
“The president's rhetoric as completely appropriate because what is even more dangerous is if there's a lack of clarity,” National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told CNN on Sept. 21, 2017. “[Kim Jong-un] is someone who has compromised everything for his nation in the pursuit of these capabilities. He is disadvantaging his own people every day by investing in what is a suicide mission.”
There had been some indication that the administration’s rhetoric would continue to trend toward more threats in the days leading up Trump’s U.N. speech, as well. U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said she had “no problem kicking it to [Secretary of Defense] General Mattis” on North Korea during a press conference on Sept. 15, 2017.
Trump’s “fire and fury” statement “was not an empty threat,” Haley told CNN on Sept. 17, 2017, before doubling down on her previous statements. “Where North Korea is being irresponsible and reckless, we were being responsible by trying to use every diplomatic possibility that we could possibly do. … I said yesterday, I’m perfectly happy kicking this over to General Mattis because he has plenty of military options.”
The string of threats, especially Nikki Haley's comments, suggest the United states and its allies could easily handle the increasingly worrisome situation with military force if it runs out of other options. This of course is entirely untrue and major conflict with North Korea would be devastating for all the involved parties.
Not surprisingly, this has not prompted a change in the behavior of the North Korean regime or Premier Kim. As we at The War Zone have noted for months, these statements feed into the country’s existing paranoid and propaganda that the United States and its allies are actively looking to destroy it and forcefully eliminate its government.
It has only appeared to give North Korea more of a reason to continue to develop advanced ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons to achieve some relative parity with the United States in order, if nothing else, to preserve the regime’s very existence. Kim said as much himself in a televised rebuttal on Sept. 21, 2017.
“His [Trump’s] remarks which described the U.S. option through straightforward expression of his will have convinced me, rather than frightening or stopping me, that the path I chose is correct and that it is the one I have to follow to the last,” the North Korean dictator stated. “We will consider with seriousness exercise of a corresponding, highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.”
Trump continued the cycle on Sept. 22, 2017, as part of a series of Tweets on various topics. “Kim Jong Un of North Korea, who is obviously a madman who doesn't mind starving or killing his people, will be tested like never before!” he posted on the social media site.
If his remarks in front of the United Nations seemed likely to generate a North Korean response, the Tweet sounded closer to a direct challenge. Given Kim's immediate response to Trump's threat of total destruction, it seems he will have little room but to make a provocative move in response to this new "test."
After Kim’s own televised address, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho had already said the North Korean response could include detonating a hydrogen bomb in or over the Pacific Ocean. Earlier in September 2017, North Korea tested what experts believe to be a working thermonuclear device.
The country has also tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, twice, in addition to firing two more intermediate range Hwasong-12s sailing dangerously over Japan into the Pacific. Either of these missiles could potentially carry a nuclear weapon.
If the North Koreans did go this route, it would be an unprecedented and risky provocation that would fundamentally change the calculus of the crisis. The Chinese conducted the last atmospheric nuclear weapons test in 1980, but at the relative safety of the remote Lop Nor test site, which is well within their borders. Neither China nor North Korea are signatories to the 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which bans signatories from setting off nuclear devices above ground, under water, or in space. China did sign, but not ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits any tests whatsoever, while North Korea did not sign that agreement.
North Korea lacks the space for this sort of above ground testing within its territory and would have to send a fully operational missile flying over Japan to reach an open expanse in the Pacific. Not only would this limit the ability of North Korean engineers and scientists to observe and gain valuable data about the test, a failure of the missile at any point during this journey could be catastrophic.
Another option would be to fire the missile from a ship or a submarine, or to simply detonate a device on a floating platform out in the Pacific Ocean. However, this would open the mission up to interdiction on the high seas by American or other foreign powers, who might be able to seize the device, stop the test, and gain valuable insight into the state of North Korea's most advanced weapons.
In the future, North Korea may simply need to conduct nuclear weapons tests outside of its own borders since the Punggye-ri underground test site may simply not be able to survive the strain of more powerful thermonuclear designs. The nuclear test earlier in September 2017 appeared to cause the tunnel containing the device to collapse, highlighting the limits of underground testing.
Even if the atmospheric test went as intended, it could be difficult to be entirely sure there would be no inadvertent casualties and the resulting fallout could easily fall on civilian mariners or populated areas. The crew of a Japanese fishing boat, the Daigo Fukuryū Maru, infamously suffered dangerous radiation exposure after the U.S. military’s Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll in 1954. One of the sailors died.
It could also be hard for the United States and its allies to necessarily tell that if any new missile launches ares test and not a first strike, too. The U.S. military has only ever conducted one of these so-called “end-to-end” nuclear tests demonstrating the full capabilities of a live ballistic missile for exactly this reason.
In 1962, the U.S. Navy fired an armed Polaris submarine launched ballistic missile in a test nicknamed Frigate Bird, part of the larger Operation Dominic. Many experts have already dubbed the potential North Korean launch “Juche Bird,” a blend of the American nickname with Juche, the name North Korea’s core, military-first ideology.
It could be a risk Kim is willing to accept in the face of what appear to be consistently growing threats from the Trump administration. It is also possible he could seek to first demonstrate the full range of the Hwasong-14, proving his regime has the ability to strike the U.S. mainland. North Korea’s last missile test, involving a Hwasong-12, confirmed the weapon has at least the range, if not necessarily the accuracy, to strike the U.S. Pacific Ocean territory of Guam, a threat Kim has made repeatedly.
In addition, it is possible that North Korea could seek other avenues to respond Trump’s rhetoric, including increasing its smuggling and other illicit efforts or stepping up cooperation with other American opponents, chiefly Iran. There are already a number of likely connections between North Korean and Iranian ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs and the regime in Pyongyang could see proliferating its advance military technology as a means to further challenge the U.S. government.
This could add another dimension to separate threats from the Trump administration to end the deal with Iran over its existing controversial nuclear program, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Underscoring this potential issue, on Sept. 22, 2017, Iran publicly displayed its Khorramshahr medium range ballistic missile for the first time, showing a number of similarities to North Korea’s now well proven Musudan design.
And despite Nikki Haley’s and H.R. McMaster’s insistence that there are available military options to respond to these growing provocations, as well as Trump’s vague threats, any direct action would be fraught with its own dangers. One of the most likely courses of action, shooting down the missile, carries significant risks as the impact of the interceptor could trigger the device or the radioactive debris could fall over populated areas.
Perhaps more importantly to the viability of America’s still largely unproven ballistic missile defense shield, if the intercepting weapon misses or otherwise fails to achieve the desired effect, it would expose a serious vulnerability to not just North Korea, but the rest of the world. On top of that, the United States would need to make sure its defenses are positioned in such a way as to have a good chance at scoring a hit.
In particular, systems that engage the missile as it comes falling back down to earth, such as the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system, have a very narrow window to achieve a “kill.” Furthermore, this means that personnel manning the interceptors would likely be in the direct path the incoming weapon, and if it was fully armed, a nuclear test.
There is very little room for failure in any of these scenarios. Even if the shoot down were to go smoothly, it is possible that it could trigger a larger and immensely destructive conflict on the Korean Peninsula or throughout East Asia. The War Zone’s Tyler Rogoway has highlighted these various issues previously in a deep dive into the United States’ available options in responding to North Korea’s continued provocations.
Though he continues to stress that diplomacy should be the first choice to de-escalating the tensions, Secretary of Defense Mattis has indicated that the U.S. military may have other weapons or systems to attack the Kim regime without putting South Korea or Japan at risk. “Yes, there are [military options], but I will not go into details,” Mattis told reporters on Sept. 19, 2017.
“Yes, I don't want to go into that,” he added when asked if these plans involved so-called “kinetic” action, usually a term for lethal force. It’s hard to see how a direct strike, no matter how limited, would not provoke a North Korean retaliation that would be devastating at least to South Korea.
North Korea has made it clear in the past that it is willing to kill South Koreans if it feels provoked. Under the leadership of Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong Il, in March 2010, the reclusive regime sunk a South Korean patrol boat, the ROKS Cheonan, killing all the sailors on board. Eight months later, North Korean troops shelled the island of Yeonpyeong, killing two South Korean Marines and another two South Korean civilians, as well as wounding nearly 20 more people.
It is possible that Mattis simply meant kinetic as in direct action, but was referring to the use of electronic warfare or cyber attacks to cripple the North Korean military’s communications and command and control infrastructure or knock out power to key ballistic missile and nuclear sites. The Untied States reportedly planned to unleash a broad cyber offensive against state-operated infrastructure in Iran if the JCPOA fell through. There could easily be a similar plan in place toward North Korea.
All of these options still come with their own risks, though, and there’s still no indication that they would convince Kim to change course. If the North Korean regime’s primary goal is its own survival, it is perfectly rational for them to continue to demonstrate their resolve to respond in kind to American threats.
And despite his comments, Trump's first step, on Sept. 21, 2017, was to sign a new executive order penalizing any individual or business doing business with North Korea. This follows a trend of steady sanctions against actors and firms outside of North Korea that the United States accuses of enabling the reclusive country's government.
Trump and other members of his administration repeatedly question Kim’s mental stability, but as we at The War Zone have noted before, he clearly has a coherent plan. We’re still not sure that U.S. government has developed a thought-out strategy to dissuade him from his chosen path.
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